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Churches seek low-power radio licenses; members of Congress, NRB oppose program

WASHINGTON (BP)–Hundreds of churches and Christian ministries are seeking permission to share the gospel of Jesus via radio in their local communities, but their efforts may prove fruitless in the face of opposition from Congress and broadcast organizations.

More than 750 applicants from 10 states and the District of Columbia sought low-power FM radio licenses in the new program’s first round of filing completed in June, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Of those, nearly half were churches or religious organizations, with many of those evangelical Christian in nature, according to an estimate by a Washington organization that has assisted some low-power applicants.

It was the first of five filing periods set by the FCC with a goal of licensing 1,000 new low-power FM stations. Each station, which would not exceed 100 watts, would be able to broadcast to an area no larger than a radius of about three and a half miles.

While many churches and Christian ministries see the FCC’s plan as a low-cost opportunity for them, others — including the National Religious Broadcasters — see a danger. NRB, as well as the National Association of Broadcasters, opposes the program because of its potential for interfering with the signals of established stations.

“We love the idea of more stations getting the gospel out,” said Karl Stoll, a NRB spokesman. “That would be great but not at the expense of those that are already heavily invested in.

“Our position is, ‘Here are hundreds of radio stations that are members with NRB, Christian stations that have invested millions of dollars, many of those dollars from donors, and we feel it is important to protect those donors'” until it is clear whether low-power stations will interfere with the transmissions of established stations, Stoll said.

There are conflicting studies on the potential for interference. With interference raised as a concern, members of Congress have acted to eliminate or limit the FCC’s plan. The House of Representatives adopted in April a bill that would have the effect of sharply reducing the number of licensees and would require the FCC to establish a pilot program to test whether low-power stations will interfere with existing FM stations.

“If the FCC proceeds at its current scale and pace, it’s likely that the quality of radio signals will be damaged all across this country,” said Rep. Michael Oxley, R.-Ohio, when his bill was adopted overwhelmingly.

A Senate version introduced by Sen. Judd Gregg, R.-N.H., would effectively eliminate the FCC program.

Meanwhile, the FCC plans to accept applications in late August from the next group of states, and interested Christians hope to extend the proclamation of the Bible to other communities.

AmGrace, a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization seeking to spread God’s Word through its reading on the air, is helping churches with the application process and volunteering its assistance in setting up stations. On its Internet site, AmGrace says a low-power station would expand a church’s outreach and provide young people with ministry projects.

AmGrace provides aid without charge for the opportunity to fill in a station’s programming with Scripture reading it has produced on CD-rom.

The organization’s purpose is “to get God’s Word out in the community. … God [has] promised that His word will not return void,” said Danny Miller, an AmGrace director who is a member of First Baptist Church, Asheboro, N.C.

AmGrace has focused on assisting Southern Baptist churches but would gladly help any church interested in spreading God’s Word, Miller said. It has advised at least 200 churches already, he said.

The start-up cost for a low-power station would be about $10,000 to $12,000 on the low end increasing to $20,000 to $25,000 on the high end, Miller estimated.

AmGrace is concerned Congress will limit or end the program, “but we’ve made it a matter of prayer and have encouraged some of the churches we’ve talked to to pray,” he said.

William Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church, Mansfield, La., said his congregation “would be disappointed” if it did not receive a license. Louisiana was one of the 10 states in the first filing period, and First Baptist Church, which has not worked with AmGrace, was one of 66 applicants from the state.

Mansfield, a town of about 5,000 in the northwest part of the state, does not have a radio station, Crosby said. “We wanted basically to share sacred music, sermons, devotions with people in the area” and promote the events of First Baptist and other churches, Crosby said.

First Baptist, which averages about 250 in Sunday morning attendance, does not expect to have a problem in paying the $20,000 it estimates will be needed to start the station, Crosby said.

There were 769 applicants in the first filing period that closed in early June. Forty-seven percent of those were churches or religious groups, according to an analysis by the Media Access Project published in The New York Times. Among the churches were several Baptist congregations and numerous Calvary Chapels.

The first group of applicants came from not only the District of Columbia and Louisiana but Alaska, California, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah. In addition to churches and religious groups, the diverse list of applicants included Louisiana College, a Baptist school in Pineville, La.; the Georgia Department of Transportation; the Rock ‘n Roll Preservation Society, Newport Beach, Calif.; the Southern Utah Air Museum, Washington, Utah; and the Crisis Pregnancy Help Center, Slidell, La.

The group of applicants eligible to file next will be from Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Wyoming and Puerto Rico. The dates of the filing period, which will begin at the end of August, will be announced by the FCC in late July.

AmGrace’s website may be accessed at www.amgrace.net.